Dealing with the water crisis
NOW that Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes has officially sounded the alarm, I hope that most Filipinos, particularly those who are in a position to do something about it, will finally sit up and acknowledge the urgency and gravity of the water crisis that is about to hit us. The water crisis is a global phenomenon, but one that hits third world countries like the Philippines more brutally. In reality, the water crisis is already being experienced daily by many sectors of Philippine society, particularly by those in the slum areas. The major impact on the country, according to Reyes, will be felt starting 2010. That’s barely three years from now.
A water crisis is an unimaginable catastrophe. Forget about not having crude oil, or about not having electricity or telephone. But not having water? Arrrgh.
Next to air, water is probably the most basic of all resources in this world. Thus it is not an exaggeration to claim that water is life; that water is everyone’s business. Water means health, hygiene, sanitation, farming, cleanliness, refreshment, recreation, etc. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 3,900 children die every day due to water- borne diseases or to lack of access to safe and clean water. One in every six people in the world does not have access to safe drinking water. The statistics are grim, but sadly, they are numbers that are difficult to trundle out to produce action because we happen to be a country surrounded by water and our streets do get flooded every so often.
There is water everywhere, so what water crisis are we talking about?
Whether we recognize them or not, the warning signs are all over. In fact, they have been there for quite some time. In Metro Manila and in various urban centers, safe drinking water has not been readily available since five or six years ago. Do you know anyone who still drinks water straight from the faucet? I don’t. Everyone I know buys bottled filtered water. And one has to be blind not to notice that filtered drinking water has become a cottage industry in our country—there’s a water-filtering machine every other two blocks. (Thought balloon: Is the government monitoring the product of these business enterprises? I hope this is just misplaced paranoia on my part, but I do have this sneaking suspicion that many of the so-called filtered water that are being peddled actually came straight from Maynilad’s rusty pipes and faucets.)
Non-government organizations in this country have already sounded the alarm as early as 10 years ago and have in fact already started a number of education and advocacy programs at the grassroots level. I am personally familiar with the work of one such group, the Molave Development Foundation, which has done remarkable community-based educational campaigns on water and sanitation. Their advocacy has been primarily on water and sanitation, with particular focus on prevention of water-borne diseases. There are other organizations that are addressing the water problem, but it is a predicament that will require everyone’s—as in everyone’s —help. Non-government organizations alone can’t do it. The government alone can’t do it.
The water crisis is caused by two factors: Increasing scarcity of the supply and mismanagement of both the supply and the delivery of the resource.
The increasing scarcity is obviously caused by unchecked population growth aggravated by breakneck urbanization and industrialization. It looks like the basic law of supply and demand with the demand briskly overtaking the supply. It gets complicated, however, when we factor in the fact that the increasing demand for water, and the ineffective management of both the water supply and the delivery of water to those who need it, are also causing serious damage to the environment, particularly aquatic ecosystems. The domino effect begins. A damaged aquatic ecosytem adversely affects the species that depend on the system. Eventually, it goes full cycle and inevitably affects us, homo sapiens, directly.
The ineffective management of our water resource is illustrated in many problematic situations.
Just a few months back, Gina Lopez of ABS-CBN Foundation was knocking on the door of every organization—civic, professional, educational, etc.—to enlist support for saving the La Mesa Watershed. The La Mesa dam is the source of drinking water for Metro Manila.
The reason for the necessity of preserving the watershed and opposition to urbanization along its banks is sheer common sense. Then again, we all know that common sense is not common. So millions of signatures have to be gathered, petitions addressed to everyone had to be made, etc., etc., before the campaign started gaining some support. Hopefully, the La Mesa Watershed will be spared from man’s greed and folly. But that’s because ABS-CBN threw the whole weight of its media empire behind the campaign.
Elsewhere in this country, however, rivers and lakes are gasping for life, and many are dead beyond any possible hope of being nurtured back to life. Our forest cover is disappearing fast. The number of golf courses (which consume millions of liters of water every day) continue to increase. People are eating more meat (to grow a kilogram of beef requires at least 13,000 liters of water compared to the 100 liters of water it requires to grow a kilogram of cabbage). Everyone is wasting water unmindful of the fact that there is no such thing as a limitless and infinite reservoir of water under this planet.
Meanwhile, people in slums and squatter areas continue to lack access to safe water. The poor in this country spend more for water than say, those millionaires in Forbes Park who have swimming pools and jacuzzis. In the slums, water is sold by the container at a going rate of P20-P30 each depending on the distance between the house and nearest source. A household with three children would consume at least four containers a day for their household needs. That’s easily P100 a day—and that still excludes drinking water, for which they will have to shell out another 30 pesos per container. That comes to about 3,500 pesos a month just for water! And that’s not even running water yet. Water and sanitation are inseparable concepts, which is why water-borne diseases claim millions of lives every year.
Some people have brought up the Singapore model as a possible solution. Singapore processes seawater and recycles the water used in households and factories back into fresh drinking water. Yes, there is technology out there that is available but it comes at a great cost. It is a technology that is not applicable to a country of 7,000 islands. We just cannot build 7,000 water processing plants—one for every island; nor can we lay hundreds of thousands of kilometers of water pipes to crisscross the archipelago.
We need more realistic and feasible solutions. And we need them now. As one song goes, “You don’t miss your water until the well runs dry.”